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Leg Two - Jan 6th - 7th 2009: The Coast Starlight
Andy Anderson Amtrak Los Angeles Union Station

Los Angeles Union Station is an outstanding tribute to the art-deco era, and a fun place to people watch

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At Los Angeles Union Station (LAUS)

I check out of my room at the Marriott, thank the staff for an excellent stay, and then pop into a cab for the two-mile ride to LAUS. Arrival time: 8:40AM. It's a beautiful day, and I toyed with the idea of hoofing it; however, my idea to get in a bit of early-morning exercise is dampened by the thought of wheeling all my luggage for two-miles... Okay, I'm a wimp, I admit it.

As I enter this great monument to the art deco era, I hear an announcement over the terrible speaker system: It's inviting all Coast Starlight first-class passengers to the Traxx Bar. I miss the place completely and instead wait outside the Traxx Restaurant, until I realize that it's closed. A bit more exploration, leads me to the correct location. The Traxx Bar is located near the main entrance of LAUS, and just off to the right. The Traxx Restaurant is located a bit further down, and on the left.

When I approach the lounge, I notice that many of the sleeper-car passengers have already begun to arrive. The lady checking tickets at the entrance, does not seem to be in the best of moods. The lounge officially opens at 8:45AM, and is only available for passengers holding a first-class ticket. I'm standing at the entrance; however, Ms. Happy Pants is not allowing anyone into the lounge until exactly, preciesly 8:45... not one second sooner.

I'm a firm believer that everyone will have down days; however, when you're in the service industry, you need to suck it up and smile. Although she's not dancing and singing: The Sun Has Got it's Hat On, she does seem to mellow out after a bit... I even think I saw the beginnings of a smile cross her lips. Oh my, hope she doesn't crack her cheeks.

I will admit that I find Los Angeles a bit of a cold city. Everyone seems more interested in himself or herself than making any meaningful conversation with strangers. As I pass an attendant, he looks at me, and I can almost hear him thinking: I dare you to make me smile. Of course, I'm from the Mid-West, and people sometimes seem a bit friendlier. The good news is that all the staff members on the Southwest Chef were wonderful and friendly, and I don't expect the crew of the Coast Starlight to be any different.

The Traxx Bar

The lounge (called the Traxx Bar), offers free coffee, tea, and juices, along with assorted pastries. The coffee is very welcome, since the morning temperature is in the lower fifties, and they have all the doors open. It really doesn't bother me (being from Wichita); however, all the California natives, are huddled up and wearing coats with hoods. Currently, I'm sitting with my hands wrapped around a warm cup of coffee, and just doing some people watching.

In about twenty minutes the conductor is supposed arrive and begin the boarding process. The first-class passengers board about a half hour before they load up the coach cars. From what I understand, the car attendants on the Coast Starlight come around with a small bottle of champagne, and will take your reservation for lunch (we'll see).

Another cool thing is that the first class passengers get the option of dining in the Pacific Parlour Car, or in the normal dining car. The Parlour Car is a feature that's only available on the Coast Starlight. It's a lounge and dining car on the second floor, and a movie theater on the first floor (primarily for the kids). I don't plan on watching a movie on the train (why watch a movie when you have all that beautiful scenery just outside your window); however, I will frequent the lounge area. They have hot bites and snacks, with coffee, tea, juices; even an espresso bar... be still my beating heart.

While I'm waiting in the station for the arrival of the conductor, I take the time to look around. The nice thing about the Traxx Bar, is that it's apportioned with comfy chairs and tables; where I can work, or just do some people watching. Another good thing; there seems to be plenty of sockets for plugging in electrical stuff... like my computer.

As I look around, I'm glad that I arrived early. The lounge is filling up and all the seating areas are now occupied... it's standing room only in the Traxx Bar. Yet, the Coast Starlight normally carries three first-class cars... each car has 5 bedrooms, 14 smaller sleeper bedrooms, one family bedroom, and one handicap bedroom, or the possibility of 44 people per car. That's assuming that all the bedrooms are full to capacity. Three sleepers, equals a maximum possibility for 135 first-class passengers.

As I look around the lounge (it's rather small), there are about 35 to 40 people. So, either everyone hasn't shown up yet, or (like the Southwest Chief), we won't be totally full. Another consideration is that some of the first-class passengers will be added to the train at other stops. We'll see what happens. This is a really cool place; so cool as a matter of fact, that I forgot to take any photos. I'll remember to take some photos, when I'm back here in October.

Onboard the Coast Starlight

Our conductor arrived spot on time. She's very friendly, and spends time to talk to each of the first-class passengers. That's what I call "first-class" service. Once she's checked our tickets, we leave the Traxx Bar walk outside for a bit, and then board the famous Coast Starlight. My car attendant (Robin) helps me to get settled, and then offers me a choice of champagne or apple cider... I opt for the champagne. HEY, I know it's early... but I'm on vacation.

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The backrests in my bedroom contain the logo of the Coast Starlight

As I pop the cork on my champagne, the Coast Starlight glides out of the station at 10:15AM... I'm already impressed. I decide to make a Mimosa (champagne, orange juice) to celebrate our on time departure, so I go out to the service area and get a glass of ice and fill it half way with orange juice, then I return to my bedroom, and fill the remainder with champagne. Life is good.

Andy Anderson Coast Starlight image
Robin helps new passengers board the train

It takes me about twenty minutes to put up my stuff. After I feel everything is in order, I pick up and head for the Pacific Parlour Car. Although they don't officially open until 30 minutes after leaving the station, I found the attendant (Alan) friendly, and has everything ready. I sit down with a glass of tea, and relax as a smog-shrouded Los Angeles slowly fades into the distance. As we purposefully move northward, the skies turn an azure blue. That sky is such a hard blue; I believe you could strike a match off it. What a wonderful day to begin a train journey up the California Coast.

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The Coast Starlight Parlour Car is an excellent place to meet your fellow first-class passengers, and have a snack and a drink

As we move north out of Los Angeles, the tall, imposing buildings give way to lands populated by small communities and lots and lots of open farmland.

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The Coast Starlight emblem etched into a glass separator in the Parlour Car

It's about ninety minutes into the trip, and the lounge car only has 8 other first-class passengers. I'm assuming that the train is not packed. As a matter of fact, in my sleeper car two of the five bedrooms are empty. As far as I'm concerned, an almost empty Parlour Car is not really a bad thing because it gives me the opportunity to spread out my computer and camera stuff, and work here; instead of my room. So far, this trip has taught me that not a lot of people travel Amtrak in January. Since I'm planning another major trip in October, we'll see if it's any different.

In the second hour of the trip, the landscape opens up, and off to the West the ocean makes its first appearance. The Coast Starlight glides along the coastline, seemingly inches from the breakwater. Today the ocean is fairly calm, and the sun, a fiery orange globe, reflects off the blue/green of the ocean, making it sparkle like a million diamonds. Even though we're enclosed in the metallic bubble of the Parlour Car, you can almost hear the gulls plying the beaches, feel the breeze off the ocean, and taste the salt in the air.

This is an area of California that, in warmer months, is populated by swimmers and campers. Today, only a few brave souls are in the surf. They're wearing wetsuits to protect, against the cold, and are attempting to catch a wave or two.

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The Pacific ocean forms a beautiful backdrop to our speeding train

I've got a 1:00PM lunch reservation, and it's in the Pacific Parlour Car (as opposed to the dinning car). This should be interesting.

Lunch on the Coast Starlight: Pacific Parlour Car

At 1:00PM sharp, Alan calls my name over the loudspeaker, and informs me it's time for lunch (they do that for all the Parlour Car guests). I have a small salad and bowtie pasta, that's quite tasty. For dessert, I choose a chocolate pecan tart that was excellent. As I mentioned earlier, the meals onboard Amtrak are getting better and better, and that's a good thing.

Since there's a lot of available room, I wind up staying in the Parlour Car until 5:30PM. They're fitted with 120v outlets, so I just brought my computer, plugged it in, and Bob's Your Uncle.

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Vandenburg airbase with its Titan Missile launch platforms sit just outside our window.

Wine Tasting on the Coast Starlight

The wine tasting was at 3:45PM. It cost five bucks for first-class passengers and ten bucks for coach passengers (if there is any room left). We wound up with eight people (five from first, and 3 last-minute folks from coach). Alan shooed away a couple of kids who were playing computer games. He explained that they couldn't be in the Parlour Car for the wine tasting; however, they could come back in about a half hour.

The tasting itself included two local whites and two reds, along with some cheese and crackers. Alan knew his wines, and explained each one as we did our tasting. I'm not much of a wine expert; however, I know what I like, and all four were good... although I preferred the whites. After the tasting, Alan offered all the wines we had tasted for sale. I didn't plan to drink any great quantities of wine on the trip, and I didn't fancy lugging it around for a couple of days, so I declined.

Dinner on the Coast Starlight: Pacific Parlour Car

I did dinner in the Parlour Car, with only three other people. It was lasagna with a bolognaise sauce, a side salad (Italian dressing), and some chocolate ice cream to finish it off. Without being a food critic, the meal was great, and the company wonderful. In truth, I almost never do dessert... except when I'm on the train. Don't know why, maybe because it's free.

I can't believe it, but I've managed to spend the whole day in the Pacific Parlour Car. I've worked on my computer, in-between conversations with other first-class passengers, and actually got a fair amount of work completed.

Andy's Advice: I'm amazed at the difference between air and train travel. I've logged several million miles in the air, and I can remember going from coast-to-coast (five hours), and never once speaking to the person sitting next to me. Yet, on the train (when I'm out of my bedroom), you can't go ten minutes without finding someone willing to strike up a conversation.

Well, it's a bit after 7:00PM, and I'm back in my sleeper (finally), looking out into the gathering darkness. As the sun settles in for the night, the landscape begins to change from vibrant greens and browns, to mellow shades of gold. The vegetation-covered hills, softened by eons of wind and rain, slowly turn into black silhouettes against the deepening sky.

Darker and darker... the sky turns deep blue, then purple, finally black as velvet. As evening deepens, the stars shine out like living diamonds.

Oblivious to the night, our haven on wheels races swiftly through the dark.

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Just another perfect California sunset

Suddenly, oases' of light begin to appear in the landscape, as homes and farms attempt to push back the darkness; but to no avail, for the night will win this battle... it always does. The fiery sun has set, and night reigns supreme once more.

On and on the Coast Starlight races through the night, with only the mournful wail of her horn announcing to any who will listen that we are here, and we are not afraid of the night.

The rest of the evening I spend on my computer working on current projects. Later, after Robin makes up my bed, I settle in and read a few chapters of the old classic 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, by Jules Verne... I love the classics.

As the train gently sways back and forth, I drift off to blissful sleep. In my dream, the train turns into a submarine, and my window becomes an aquarium-view of the vast ocean depths... thank you Jules Verne.

Day 2 on the Coast Starlight

I wake up at 4:00AM fully refreshed. Some people have trouble sleeping on the train... I go out like a rock. As usual, I appear to be the only one up and about at this early hour; however, there's a big pot of coffee, freshly brewed, just waiting for me. I'm not sure when Robin actually sleeps, but she sure seems to be busy day and night. I pour off a steaming cup and head back to my room to work.

Outside my window, it's so dark the glass appears to be painted black. The ghostly glow of the train reflects off the landscape, and seems to reveal that there is snow on the ground... we must be up in the mountains. The GPS says we're traveling at a whopping 22MPH, and that we're following Interstate 5. It also says that we're passing Castle Crag State Park. I admit ignorance as to exactly where that is; however, they do seem to get a lot of snow.

Andy's Advice: A GPS (to me) is a great thing to have. It's gives you current information on speed and distance, and it will tell you exactly where you are. If you bring along a trip map (on paper), you can use this information to help record your journey. In addition, many GPS units will actually map out your entire trip.
If you don't own a GPS, but you have an iPhone (3G or higher), you can download an app (some are free), that will use the GPS capability of the iPhone, and do it all for you.
No more sticking your head out of your bedroom, and asking the attendant: Are We There Yet?

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Early morning fog, gives the landscape an eerie appearance

Breakfast on the Coast Starlight: Day 2

Breakfast is usually served up at 6:30AM, and since I've been up since 4:00, I am soooo ready. Unfortunately, for some reason, the dining car won't open up until 7:00AM... BUMMER. Even with the delay, I'm still one of a few eating breakfast that early in the morning. I get the cheese omelet with a side of sausage. That's the same breakfast I had on the Southwest Chief, but (as a chef myself) I wanted to see how two different chefs handled the same meal. Both were excellent; however, if this was the Iron Chef competition, I would have to give a slight edge to the Coast Starlight chef... his eggs were cooked softer, and the hash browns were just the right touch of crispness. So much for the Amtrak Chef's Smack Down.

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As we're eating breakfast, the sun finally manages to break through the clouds and fog... it looks like it might a be a nice day

We're currently running through the mountains of Oregon, and just made a stop in Chemult, Oregon. Now, there's a tiny spot on the map. The Amtrak station was a small building, about the size of my sleeper... I kid you not. They had a small white vehicle called the Amtrak Transfer Van, which I assume took you to civilization.

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The Chemult Amtrak station has got to be one of the smallest stations in the country

Miles and miles pass beneath our wheels and the only things to be seen are trees, brush, snow, and an occasional deer. These are really wide-open beautiful spaces.

Around 10:30AM my GPS tells me we're passing by Odell Lake, its calm waters reflect the surrounding pine trees like a mirror. I just caught a shot of a rainbow over the lake. I only had about 10 seconds to take the shot... one in a million... one in a million.

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A double rainbow (it's hard to see the second one)... I doesn't get better than this

A Bump in the Road

While on the way to Seattle, Alan, our lounge car attendant gets the news that a mudslide has covered the tracks into Seattle, and that we will terminate the trip in Portland... I hate it when that happens. We're supposed to get off the train, and then board a transfer vehicle (basically an Amtrak Greyhound bus).

We disembark in the Portland station, and the first-class passengers get on a special bus, and then head up to Seattle. Unfortunately, the State Police closed Interstate 5 literally minutes before we could get through, so we wind up driving all the way back to Portland. The whole ride takes about three hours; however, Amtrak has thought of everything. They have boxes of Subway sandwiches, and bottled drinks on the bus. We are disappointed that we can't get to Seattle; however, train travel is one grand adventure, and this is just a part of it. I entertain the bus by leading everyone the song: There she was just a walking down the street.

Check this out... Amtrak put us up for the night at the Crowne Plaza (very nice hotel), fed us dinner, and gave us money (20 bucks) for breakfast. Since I'm a Priority member with the Crowne Plaza, I upgrade my (free) room to the lounge floor.

Now, you tell me any airline that would do the same thing. What they would say is: Act of God, and send you on your merry way. This cost Amtrak a lot of money, but they did the right thing.

Anyway, it's Thursday morning, and because of the delay of my Seattle to Chicago trip (Empire Builder), I won't get back on the train until Friday at 4:45PM. I just got back from breakfast, and I'm waiting to see what will happen. If the roads open up, Amtrak will probably bus us up to Seattle. If the roads are still closed, Amtrak said that they would keep us here. One way or the other, I have to get to Seattle by 4:45PM on Friday. Even if the roads are still closed, I could always take a shuttle flight from the Portland airport to Seattle Seatac... about 150 bucks. Rather than do something as drastic as that, I'm just going to wait and see what Amtrak does. Based on what they're already done, I'm putting my faith in them.

Amtrak to the Rescue

Okay, let's go over the new deal and, as far as I'm concerned, Amtrak came up to the plate and hit a home run. Here's the history, Amtrak was trying to get me to Seattle to pick up the Empire Builder to Chicago. I get a call from Amtrak and the Friday train is cancelled... again. That makes the second time. Now, I'm forced with staying another day, and hope the train doesn't get cancelled on Saturday... Sunday... Monday... you get the idea.

So, I give the Amtrak number a call, and ask what they can do. Instead of giving me the “Act of Nature” speech, they give me a great option. I can go back on the Coast Starlight (love it), stop in Sacramento (instead of Los Angeles), and pick up the California Zephyr to Newton. Normally, that would cost an extra 700 bucks; however, they gave it to me without additional cost.

Thank you Amtrak.

When I got the news that I was going back on the Coast Starlight, I only had about ninety to get to the station. I start throwing things into my suitcase, as I'm calling the front desk to arrange for a taxi. It's a tight run, but if there's no major traffic, I should make it.

So, here I am, back at the Portland station, in the first-class lounge, waiting to board the Coast Starlight... again. This is the same train that I took from Los Angeles. As a matter of fact, I even got my old bedroom back.

The New Plan

The Empire Builder is out... instead it's down to Sacramento on the Coast Starlight; then across the country for 51 hours on the California Zephyr, and finally pick up the Southwest Chef in Chicago to Newton, Kansas. Then pick up the car, and drive back to home-sweet-home.

Is this a great life, or what...

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Andy Anderson